Middle East
1:22 pm
Thu October 11, 2012

Concerns Build Over Violence In Syria

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Columbus, Ohio, today. over the past week, the crisis in Syria deepened as the conflict spilled across the border with Turkey. While stray rounds from the civil war landed on Turkish soil from time to time, Ankara chose to look the other way until a mortar bomb struck a house last Friday and killed five civilians, including women and children.

The Turkish army responded with artillery, and shells flew across the border for several days afterwards. Then yesterday, Turkish jets forced a Syrian passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara after a tip that the plane's cargo included weapons.

If you have questions about the rising tensions on Syria's borders, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, options at the fiscal cliff include the hard stop, the bungee jump and the skydive. David Wessel will join us to explain. But first the crisis in Syria, and we begin with NPR foreign correspondent Peter Kenyon, who joins us from Antakya, which is in southwest Turkey, near the Syrian border, and Peter, nice of you to be with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi Neal, yeah, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. Reports say that Turkey is sending troops and equipment toward the border. Have you seen any evidence of that?

KENYON: Well, that's not new, they've been doing that for quite some time. As a rule, the Turkish military is quite close-mouthed and secretive about its movements. It's not easy for journalists to get very close to the movements, but from talking to locals and from a distance, from higher ground, you can see there are - there's quite a bit of both personnel and equipment.

Obviously, given the events of the last week, we know there's quite a bit of artillery down here. The shells, artillery has stopped, and the mortars, for the last couple of days, at least, there hasn't been anything. But there is now this incident with the plane, the Syrian plane, and that has raised tensions not only with Syria again but also now with Russia. So people here are a bit on edge.

CONAN: And it was all the way up to the level to Turkey's prime minister, Mr. Erdogan, who now says, today, the government found military equipment and ammunition on that plane - ammunition and equipment manufactured in Russia.

KENYON: That's right, and this remains in dispute, but speaking in Ankara, the prime minister pretty much for the first time came out and said it was military equipment and munitions. And he compared it to the kind of equipment and ammunition that the Turkish state-run arms company provides for its own army.

There was a report in a pro-government newspaper that has not yet been confirmed that said there were 10 containers, including communications gear, and also parts for - that could be used in missiles. Now that, again, is not confirmed. The other sources have also confirmed the communications equipment, but in any case Russia denies all of this.

Their armed export sources are telling Russian media no, no, no, there was nothing military on that plane. The one source in Russia even said whatever was confiscated was not of Russian origin. So the facts and the details remain a bit in dispute, but there's no question that tensions are running high.

CONAN: After that plane and its passengers were detained for some hours, they were allowed to continue on to Damascus, but Turkish aircraft have been warned away from Syrian airspace in fear of, I guess, a tit-for-tat response. Has there been any response from Damascus?

KENYON: Nothing that we've heard yet. Most of the response has come - well, sorry. There was a - the transport minister did say that this was air piracy, and he said this was in contravention of a number of civil aviation treaties. Whether they pursue that complaint, remains to be seen.

As for retaliation, Turkish aircraft were told, have been pretty much avoiding Syria airspace already, not anywhere that they really want to go. Of course you remember in June, a Turkish fighter jet was shot down after straying into Syrian airspace. So the civilian aircraft from Turkey tend to go around Syria anyway, but yes, they have been warned to be very careful now.

CONAN: Is there any appetite that you can discern on either side to escalate even further?

KENYON: I wouldn't call it an appetite, but I would also say that no one is putting the brakes on, either. We're hearing a lot of rhetoric now, the nationalist nature on both sides and the chief of the general staff, the top military person, was down here on the Turkish side of the border very recently, and he made a point of saying if this happens again - which I take to mean another mortar that kills people, like the one last Wednesday - then the response will be even stronger.

So you can tell from that that it really doesn't take much to ratchet up the tensions, and some point it could, of course, get out of control.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Peter Kenyon, who's on the Turkish side of the Syrian border. If you have questions about the rising tensions on Syria's borders, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's start with Nancy(ph), Nancy on the line with us from Framingham, Massachusetts.

NANCY: Yes, good afternoon, thank you for putting me on the air for the third time.

KENYON: Well, go ahead please.

NANCY: (Unintelligible). Turkey is a member of NATO. I believe according to the agreements among various NATO members that if one nation or one member of NATO is attacked or threatened, the other nations come to that one party's aid. And the implications are very, very serious now, I believe, especially when you think that Turkey is on one side of the Black Sea, and Russia's on the other.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, she's absolutely right. She's referring to Article V of the NATO treaty, an attack on one is an attack on all.

KENYON: Yes, yes, and Mr. Rasmussen, I believe his name is, from NATO has said quite clearly that Turkey can count on NATO to help defend it if it is attacked. Now what constitutes an attack and what kind of defense would be offered, that may be subject to further negotiation depending on how things play out.

But clearly, that is one added danger. If a NATO members gets engaged in an open conflict here with Syria, what does that mean for other NATO members, including the U.S.? That's something that people here have been thinking quite a bit about.

CONAN: And Nancy, in part to answer your question, this is a clip of tape from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, yesterday, at the National Press Club, who said, quote, I think Syria is probably the most complex issue of all to arise from the Arab Spring.

But he also showed there is no indication of any kind that intervention is imminent.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We continue to plan for a number of contingencies. We're prepared to provide options if those options are required, and that's not just options internal to the United States. As you know, Syria is bordered on the north by Turkey, a very close NATO partner, and so we're working through NATO, as well, to understand, to try to clarify and to try to collaborate on planning that ultimately might be useful.

But the military instrument of power at this point is not the prominent instrument of power that should be applied in Syria.

CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much for that call. And Peter, as we're talking about the situation on the border, fighting of course continues in Syria, including reports of bitter fighting in Azamarin, near the Turkish border. What's the latest on that?

KENYON: Well, that's very close to a town here in Turkey called Haji Pasha, and reporters have been down in Haji Pasha today and could hear that fighting and could see the results, which was a fairly substantial spike in the number of refugees coming across. There's a river there that small boats have been ferrying people across, and they wind up either in homes here or in camps.

There's also been reports of very heavy shelling in the southern suburbs of Idlib, which is the big city in the north here other than Aleppo, and one report that I don't have any details on yet but of a very large explosion, at least according to opposition activists, shook the capital, Damascus. So we're waiting for details on that.

CONAN: And of course the tension on the borders is not isolated to Turkey, though there has been military fire across that frontier. There have been incidents on the Lebanese frontier and in Jordan, as well.

KENYON: Absolutely. There's been people killed and wounded severely on the Lebanese side, and Jordan has seen a tremendous influx of refugees, and also in Iraq there's been problems. So yeah, all of the neighbors have some story to tell and some variation on the fear that this could spill over into a wider regional conflict, absolutely.

CONAN: And continuing concerns about the depth of the humanitarian crisis as more and more refugees pour across the borders.

KENYON: Yes, international aid officials are increasingly concerned about the will to keep up the amount of aid and getting the aid to the people who need it most, and mainly, of course, they're focused on the neighbors, the people outside.

Possibly the worst crisis might be the internally displaced people because of course many Syrians when they are mortared or bombed or shot out of their town, or they flee because they're afraid of that happening, they try and seek shelter inside the country, and they wind up displaced, sometimes with family but sometimes just on their own, and their situations can be quite desperate. And getting aid into those areas is much, much harder.

CONAN: And given the Turkish military's presence on the frontier, is there in fact a de facto strip inside Syria that is in the hands of the Syrian rebels?

KENYON: I wouldn't go quite that far. I would say that as these artillery barrages have come across from Turkey, there have been withdrawals of troops from certain areas on the Syrian side, which had created in part a de facto buffer zone, but it only would be for a matter of hours, say, and it would move back and forth. I wouldn't say there's anything that you could count on, day in, day out, day and night, 24/7, as being a safe zone.

The army has chosen not to go right up to the edge of the border, probably trying to be prudent and not have things spill out of control. But there was fierce fighting in a town called Khirbet al-Jouz, which is really just one valley over from the Turkish border. That was just happening a few days ago. So there is no across-the-board safe zone.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, thanks very much, we'll look forward to your reporting on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and MORNING EDITION.

KENYON: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: NPR Foreign correspondent Peter Kenyon, with us from southwestern Turkey. We're discussing the civil war in Syria and what spilled over now into neighboring countries and in particular Turkey, as mentioned Turkey a member of NATO. If you have questions about the rising tensions on Syria's borders, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the studios of member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. As we talk about the spillover effect from Syria's civil war into Turkey, we're reminded as Peter Kenyon reminded us just a few minutes ago of Turkey's membership in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Article 5 of NATO's founding document reads, in part: An armed attack against one or more member shall be considered an attack against them all, and consequently they agree that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other party, such acts as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Thus far, Turkey has not invoked the collective defense provision in Article 5, but NATO's secretary general this week pledged the group is ready to defend its ally if necessary. If you have questions about the rising tensions on Syria's borders, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joshua Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Students and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He joins us now from member station KGOU in Norman, and nice to have you back on the program with us today.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And as you look at the situation from Syria's point of view, what's the calculation here? This is a dangerous game they're playing.

LANDIS: It is a dangerous game indeed, and I think most observers have been perplexed, because at first there was some question about whether this was a mistake the mortar fire across the border, or possibly the opposition. But it's been repeated several times, and what's probably - you know, some people suspect that what's happening is that Syria is trying to stir up trouble in Turkey because as this situation has drawn out, there's been a rising chorus of criticism against Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister.

There are demonstrations in the capital and other places. People are fed up. There are almost 200,000 Syrian refugees in camps in the south of Turkey along the 550-mile border with Syria. And one's wondering: What is Turkey doing leading the charge and giving home to this insurgency, letting jihadists - many people have been critical in saying, and especially the secular Turks, saying why are you letting all these foreign jihadists go through Turkey into Syria.

Some of them are al-Qaida, and we're turning into a supporter of these Islamist groups. We don't want to be there. And so Turks are beginning to question this. There's also been a recrudescence of Kurdish terrorism in eastern Turkey; the PKK or the Kurdish Workers Party, which Turkey defines as a terrorist organization, which has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in Turkey over the last decades; has also started on the warpath again.

So Turks are very anxious about where this is leading them, and they don't want to get sucked into a possible Vietnam on their border. So Assad, in a sense, could be trying to stick his finger in this beehive and stir up opposition to Erdogan in Turkey and letting Turkey know there's a price. You lead the insurgency in Syria, we can hurt you back again, and don't think this is going to be for free.

And so the world is worrying about the international repercussions, and it could just spill over into Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey. And Assad, in a sense, has a reason to let the neighbors know don't mess with us, don't help the insurgency, it will spill over.

CONAN: There is also this incident of the plane, which seems to be on a different level. The Russians in rejecting any allegations that there was military equipment aboard that plane said look, we continue to ship supplies to Syria, our ally, but we do so through regular channels. We would not do it this way. If, as Prime Minister says, there was missile parts and other kinds of equipment on the cargo section of that passenger plane that was forced down in Ankara yesterday, that smacks of some desperation. These are things badly needed in Damascus.

LANDIS: They are badly needed, but it's also - Erdogan is taking the Syrian bait, to a certain degree. He can't allow the Syrians to stir up problems in his country, and what he's doing is, in a sense, by meeting this will full force and saying this is a national - tantamount to an invasion of Turkey, he's beating the war drums himself in order to galvanize the nation.

This could backfire severely on Assad, because if Turkey - if Turks close ranks and say, you know, we're not going to stand by as Syria does this sort of thing, it could backfire badly. And I think Erdogan is trying to use - he's rattling the saber a little bit, to close ranks. He doesn't want to let Assad get the jump on him on this.

CONAN: Well, joining us now from Studio 3A in Washington is Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thanks very much for coming in.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask if Joshua Landis' analysis, if that matches your appreciation of the situation.

CAGAPTAY: Look, I think one way of looking at this is that Assad has to win and defeat the rebels and the uprising, otherwise he'll most likely die. So he's going to use any tool and instrument available to him to make sure that international opposition to him does not build up to lead to intervention in support of the rebels to oust the Assad regime.

So there could be many ways of explaining the firing and the shelling of Turkish towns. Another way of looking at it is that maybe this was inadvertent. Maybe Assad was not trying to shell Turkey, but the circumstance are such that this could have happened accidentally but that it could happen in the future, as well.

This is how it goes: A lot of the areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army rebels are in northern Syria, literally in some cases just yards away from Turkish border. And Assad is shelling these areas, and this requires precision artillery shelling. It's part of the military that requires highly developed skills. The Syrian army is not known necessarily for its strength in precision targeting with artillery, and they use Russian weapons, which are not the best suited for precision targeting.

So they might have as well overshoot into Turkish territory and killed Turkish citizen, but that absolutely broadened Turkish reaction because there's a government in Ankara which has to react to public pressure, and you cannot just sit and watch when shells fall into your territory and kill people.

So Turkey's reaction, whether or not Assad meant it, I think was not unexpected, and we could anticipate that in the future if Assad decides whether his aim is to provoke Turkey or that his troops inadvertently shell Turkish territory, Turkey's going to respond in kind and proportionally. Therefore even if these news from the Turkish-Syrian frontier disappear for a few days that we don't hear anymore shelling, it's not unexpected that we'll see such incidences in the future.

And the question is, next time there's another shelling of Turkish territory, accidental or not, what if it kills even more people? What is Turkey going to do then? It will probably react with even stronger force, and you're going to see further escalation on the border.

CONAN: And as Joshua Landis pointed out, this is not universally popular in Turkey, far from it. Prime Minister Erdogan has to look to his own base.

CAGAPTAY: Absolutely, and I think Turkey's policy, which has made Ankara the spearhead of international opposition to Assad's policies and his crackdown and his slaughter of civilians, has put Turkey, sort of, in a dangerous place because Ankara does not want to be too exposed to the crisis. That's why I think Turkey is really trying to make sure that it has NATO and the United States backing it and that it's not left on its own should the conflict escalate further.

Then there's the whole issue of the terror attacks conducted by the PKK. It's not a coincidence in my view, and this is how a lot of Turks see it, as well, that there's been a spike in PKK attacks against Turkey, and that spike pretty much coincides with the time Turkey's Syria flipped. So around the same time Turkey decided to confront Assad back in August last year, 2011, suddenly you saw a rise in PKK attacks against Turkey.

In the last 14 months, these attacks have caused 700 casualties inside Turkey. That's a big toll for any democratically elected government. So people are probably saying, in Turkey, that because Turkey confronted the regime and because Assad's regime's chief regional protector and patron, Tehran, is encouraging the PKK to attack Turkey, so Turkey is having what is called a boomerang effect of its policy.

It's not Syria, but it's Syria's regional patron Iran that's encouraging these attacks, which is causing casualties, which is leading the public to say well, what are we going to do about this. And I think that's why the government reacted to the shelling, also to placate some of these public concerns that Turkey's talking a lot but not doing enough.

So now the public is probably saying, or feeling relieved that the government has responded to the latest shelling.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Chase(ph) is on with us from Cowtown, New Jersey.

CHASE: My question: you guys started talking about the Kurdish minority. Are they hoping to oust Assad, or are they hoping to keep that as a regional instability? Because I know that they want, you know, their own corner of the world for their own country. Are they working with the rebels, or are they, kind of, biding their time and seeing what happens?

CONAN: Joshua Landis, the Kurds of Syria are located in the northeastern corner of that country that borders both Turkey and then onto Iraq. From what we understand, they've established something of an autonomous zone there.

LANDIS: They have indeed, and the Syrian government, some people suggest, have helped them do that. And when Syria got caught in Aleppo, with bad fighting in Aleppo, it had to withdraw many of its troops from the northeast, which is the heavily Kurdish area. About 10 percent of Syria are Kurds. And in withdrawing its troops, it's handed power without any shots over to the PKK. The Kurds inside Syria have been divided between two major groups. The PKK seems to be more aligned with the Syrian government. It's anti-Turkish. The Kurdish National Council, this, sort of, an umbrella group of different Kurdish parties, has been allied more with the Syrian rebels, the Free Syrian Army and the Turks.

So Syria handed it off to Turkey's enemies, the PKK, and this is has helped to hurt Sunni-Arabs in Syria, the common enemy. And so in a way, you could say the answer to the question here, is that the Kurds who are against Assad have been very quiet, and they've stood outside of this conflict, taking a neutral position. But Assad has helped the more radical elements of the Kurdish opposition because they're anti-Turkish, and they're anti-Free Syrian Army. And so in a sense, there is a complicit - an alliance, if you would, between, at least, a dominant Kurdish group in the northeast and the Assad regime.

CONAN: And, Soner Cagaptay, there's another player here, and that is the autonomous Kurdish zone in Iraq.

CAGAPTAY: True. And in fact, the Iraqi Kurds are actually working on a different level. They're working with Turkey because they've realized that they need Turkey to balance off against Iraq's Shiite-dominated centralized government in Baghdad. And ironically, believe it or not, Turks and Iraqi Kurds are best friends today, compared to only a few years ago where a lot of people were concerned about tense relations between Iraqi Kurds and Ankara. So the Iraqi Kurds are telling Ankara that they can help Ankara in the region, for instance, by unifying the Syrian Kurds. And they have tried to extend to bring the PKK-supporting Kurds to Syria into an agreement so that this group is now saying it will not target Turkey.

Of course, we'll have to wait and see how long that deal holds. I think the Syrian Kurds are basically sitting on a fence. They don't want to bear the brunt of the uprising. They're letting the Sunni-Arabs take care of that or bear that burden, but they're also waiting for the collapse of the regime before they can really rise up. And for the time being, I think they're just taking control over territory in northeast Syria and also pockets in the northwest near Aleppo, in anticipation of a collapse of the regime.

When the regime collapses, I think the Kurdish are hoping that Syria is to gain control of areas so they will something similar to what the Iraqi Kurds had after the fall of Saddam's regime there, de facto autonomy, and then the Kurds would like to negotiate what the rest of the country based on that. So that means that Assad's fall is not going to necessarily bring quick stability to Syria, because you're going to see tensions between ethnic Arabs and ethnic Kurds in that country.

And the Iraqi Kurds are obviously promising to unify the Kurdish opposition, and I think they're just telling the Syrian Kurds to be quiet. But we also know that the Iraqi Kurds are training Syrian Kurds, so this is probably in anticipation of the day after Assad.

CONAN: Chase, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Also with us is Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, where he's the director of the Center for Middle East Studies. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's see - we go next to Steve, and Steve is on with us from Laurinburg in North Carolina.

STEVE: Thank you. Yeah. You know, one concern I have in terms of American foreign policy in regards to these conflicts, these civil conflicts, that there is going to be an incident that reveals the motives of other countries. And the plane, which may or may not have had weaponry or communication, that - I think that was just kind of taste. And my personal - I'm afraid that there will be some event that reveals, even if it's an ally, what they actually want to come of this if it doesn't really have anything to do with them initially.

What I'm curious though - my question is, from our perspective, whether it's military or our government, what something, whether it's spillover into another country, what is that kind of one thing that we really don't want to happen? Is it spilling over, or is it, you know, is it - I know it's kind of a loaded question. Or is it really someone supplying weapons, trafficking weapons that we didn't expect? What do you think that is?

CONAN: Joshua Landis, what's the worst-case scenario, at least as far as the United States is concerned?

LANDIS: Well, I think the U.S. has many fears in this, and in many ways, fears have dominated U.S. policy towards Syria. And the U.S. came out of the blocks supporting the Arab Spring, saying we don't want the devil we know, we want the devil we don't know, and we've had it with the Assad regime. But today, it looks like America is getting cold feet, and it doesn't really - it isn't really prepared for a Syria that's not run by Assad. It's not supplying Stinger missiles or ground-to-air missiles, which is what the Syrian opposition needs to neutralize the Syrian air force.

And it's going slow on this because it's worried, first and foremost, I think, about penetration of al-Qaida in Syrian opposition. The Syrian opposition is notoriously fragmented, 2,000 militias, and some of those militias are quite Islamist. America is trying to get a read on who's friendly, who's not friendly, but the whole place is very hard to - you know, ultimately, America doesn't want this to end up like Afghanistan because they've structured this much like Afghanistan in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia is supplying most of the money. America is doing the diplomatic work. Turkey is playing the role of Pakistan, helping the opposition in.

But they could end up with al-Qaida, and that's the - I think that just paralyzes America right now. They do not want to end up like they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And the CIA is terrified, because if they end up with al-Qaida, they're going to be the ones - so they're covering their ass. Everybody is playing a very conservative game right now, and I think Syria senses that. Assad senses that weakness. And we've just heard reports this afternoon that Hezbollah had - has taken responsibility for launching a drone over Israel.

CONAN: A drone over Israel, yeah.

LANDIS: And that suggests...

CONAN: Over Israel's nuclear sites, yeah.

LANDIS: And that suggests that this isn't just, you know, if you put that together with what's been happening with Turkey, that Syria is pushing back a little bit. And Iran is pushing back, like with the Kurds, and letting its people know in the area this could have adverse effects for everybody in the area. So let's cool it down, and that's what, you know, I think right now, America, leading up to the elections, is just playing a very safe game, and it's not getting involved here.

CONAN: As if to re-emphasize that point, it was freely admitted it was an Iranian-made drone that Hezbollah sent over Dimona, the Israeli nuclear power plant. Joshua Landis, thanks very much for your time today.

LANDIS: Pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, with us from KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Soner Cagaptay, thanks for your time.

CAGAPTAY: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Soner Cagaptay, the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. When we come back from a short break, everything you need to know about the fiscal cliff. David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal will join us. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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